My annual long relaxing August weekend in Wisconsin came to an end. I can’t think of any place I’d rather pass the time for a few days than Wisconsin — in the summer. Many people who come to this part of the country end up in Wisconsin Dells. I never thought much about the definition of a dell although for some reason I began to wonder recently. It had to be some kind of rural feature like a hilly field or something. Rather than assume, I went ahead and checked the actual dictionary definition.
Merriam-Webster defined dell as "a secluded hollow or small valley usually covered with trees or turf."
Old English dell "dell, hollow, dale" (perhaps lost and then borrowed in Middle English from cognate Middle Dutch/Middle Low German delle), from Proto-Germanic daljo (source also of German Delle "dent, depression," Gothic ib-dalja "slope of a mountain")
So how about those Wisconsin Dells (map)? They formed rather recently in geological terms. Glaciers hundreds of feet thick extended far into North America in the last Ice Age although they bypassed an area near its southern extreme, in present day Wisconsin and Minnesota. This became the Driftless Area and it looked considerably different than surrounding terrain because of it. A huge lake formed as the ice began to melt around 15,000 years ago, dammed by a glacier. When the glacier inevitably burst, the lake drained in a single massive flood, cutting a gorge through solid rock along the banks of the Wisconsin River. People of European descent who moved into the area in the modern era named this featured the Wisconsin Dells.
I discovered many different towns and villages bearing the Dell designation or variations throughout the United States (e.g., Dell Junction, Dell Rapids, Hazel Dell). Dell City in Texas seemed particularly interesting (map) because of its origin. It didn’t exist until around 1949 when someone discovered a large underground reservoir. Farmers pumped water from this subterranean source to irrigate their fields and a town formed around it. Distinctive green circles resulting from center pivot irrigation appeared all around town, still visible in satellite photos today. According to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas, Dell City thrived for awhile and grew to nearly a thousand residents, before declining to about four hundred by the year 2,000.
Its etymology fascinated me, if true. Texas Escapes tracked down the story and reported,
When we asked who Mr. Dell might have been, Mr. Lutrick asked if we were familiar with the nursery song "The Farmer in the Dell". There was no Mr. Dell – it’s Dell as in "a small, secluded, usually forested valley." Just forget the part about the forest.
I think many of us remembered this singing nursery rhyme from our childhood:
The farmer in the dell
The farmer in the dell
Hi-ho the derry-o
The farmer in the dell
However one of the comments posted on that article claimed that Dell City was named for an early resident, Ardell (Dell) Donathan. We may never know the truth. I’d bet on the comment although I’d hope for the nursery rhyme.
Places named for dells likely existed throughout the world although I didn’t check extensively, halting my search after finding North and South Dell in Scotland (map). They formed adjacent to each other, separated by the Dell River on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. Little information existed although the Galson Estate Trust featured brief entries for both North Dell and South Dell. Many local residents spoke Gaelic as a primary or secondary language, calling the towns Dail bho Tuath (north) and Dail bho Dheas (south). The Butt of Lewis — the northernmost point on the isle — sat nearby with its impressive lighthouse.
"The Dalles" rhymes with "pals", and "gals" and doesn’t rhyme with much of anything else. And yes, "The" is part of our name. File us under the letter "T". The "dalles" was a reference to a series of treacherous rapids once located just upriver from where the community is today. The French speaking Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders and mountain men of the 1800s used the term to describe areas where river water was constricted by rock channels.
Despite the dictionary definition, not every dell featured either forest or fields although they all included a gorge or a valley.
I found myself in familiar territory once again, with an overflowing backlog of article ideas. That signaled time for another round of house cleaning. In the past I’d featured weird place names that I’d encountered while I searched for other topics. Then I focused on More Weird Place Names and finally Even More Weird Place Names. I thought I could build upon that theme while cutting down the pile. Those weird place names just kept coming.
First I decided to take care of some unfinished business left over from the previous effort. Reader "Kiru" said, "Just a suggestion for the next one – there’s a small village near me in Devon, England called Woolfardisworthy. As weird of a name that is, the pronunciation is even worse!"
That sounded intriguing. The next opportunity arrived today so I decided to check it out. Also I couldn’t even imagine how to pronounce it. I considered I’d probably butcher it with my mid-Atlantic American accent even if I knew. Fortunately things like YouTube existed and I found my answer easily enough. Kiru knew the deal. Woolfardisworthy, when spoken through the mouths of local residents came out something similar to Woolsery.
I solved that mystery quicker than I expected although I encountered something more unusual in the process. Two towns with that same strange name existed in Devon. Was the town Kiru referenced located in mid Devon (map) or north Devon (map). They sat about 48 miles (78 kilometres) apart map.
Their history also intertwined. According to Tour Devon, the name came from the Saxon language meaning Wulfheard’s homestead, "denoting the fact that the village was probably originally founded in 680 when the Saxon Abbot Wulfheard of Crediton was granted two manors." I figured the one in north Devon in the Torridge district was probably the right one. It seemed to be the larger of the two manors granted to the awesomely named Wulfheard of Crediton.
The buoyancy on the Neversink River must be amazing. I supposed someone could fall overboard and literally never sink. Nobody needed life jackets. What magical properties existed in the waters of New York? I pondered that notion as I drove across the Neversink on the way to New England recently. The river stretched about 55 miles (89 km), flowing past Port Jervis before joining the Delaware River. It served as one of the important water sources for New York City, dammed to form the Neversink Reservoir in 1950 (map).
The etymology remained uncertain although it most certainly did not come from the English words Never and Sink, sad to say. It likely passed down from the original Native American inhabitants speaking an Algonquin language. The Intertubes offered various theories and translations. Many of them converged on Mad River or Wild River, or variations on that theme. European settlers Anglicized the phrase into something more familiar that they could actually pronounce.
I’d seen Nanty-Glo spelled with a hyphen and Nanty Glo without, so I consulted the Geographic Names Information Center. That hardly cleared up the situation, however. According to the US Geological Survey, the hyphen should be used when referring to the Borough of Nanty-Glo and dropped for the Town of Nanty Glo. Either way, they both designated the same basic area in western Pennsylvania (map). The name intertwined with the history and geology of the underlying terrain. Local mountains contained large coal deposits that people began to mine in the Nineteenth Century. Immigrant from Wales — another area with a rich coal mining tradition — brought much of the mining knowledge and labor. Thus the name came from the Welsh language, Nant Y Glo, meaning a ravine, brook or valley of coal.
A similarly-named town of Nantyglo also existed in Wales (map).
I’ve driven between Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin on Interstate 94 more times than I can probably count. I always wondered about the town behind the exit sign for Ixonia (map). Did it reference a fascination with the number nine, from the Roman numeral IX? No, actually it reflected pure happenstance when a dispute arose as the township formed. According to the Town of Ixonia,
To simplify matters it was agreed upon to put the letters of the alphabet on slips of paper and have young Mary Piper draw them until a name could be formed. As the result, "Ixonia" was the name given town 8 on January 21, 1846, and remains the only town bearing this name in the United States.
Thankfully, young Mary Piper selected a random combination that everyone found acceptable. She could have done a whole lot worse as she averted a crises single-handedly. However I still remained skeptical. If Ixonia began life as Town 8 wouldn’t it make sense to name it sequentially the next time, as IX?
Geo-geek conspiracy theory!
I’ve published Twelve Mile Circle on a Sunday morning / Wednesday evening schedule for awhile. I now have a weekly Wednesday evening activity that complicates things so I plan to post on Thursday evenings instead. Don’t panic when nothing appears on Wednesday. 12MC isn’t going away!
I wrote several articles about my Michigan trip and I still had a pile of ideas I hadn’t touched yet. They didn’t fall into common themes so I lumped all those leftover scraps together to finish the series. I hope everyone enjoyed — or at least tolerated — my ramblings from the latest journey. We’ll return to regular programming in a couple of days.
Highway officials defined a "concurrency" as a single stretch of road with two or more route designations. This happens all of the time on Interstate highways in the United States. Roads heading between different places converge, often near a city, and both numbers remain so drivers passing through don’t get confused. I noticed an oddity in the pattern in Lansing, Michigan. Interstate 96 ran across southern Michigan. Interstate 69 ran through the middle of the United States in several segments, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. They joined briefly on the western side of a loop bypassing Lansing.
That portion created a concurrency for Interstates 96 and 69, each number the reverse of the other (map). I didn’t know if any other examples existed elsewhere, probably because I didn’t bother to look. Please let me know if anyone can find another one. It didn’t mean much although I still enjoyed doing a double-take when I spotted it.
Gerald Ford Museum
I went to another Presidential Library & Museum. It probably won’t become one of my regular lists although I’ll visit one if it falls along my route. I saw Woodrow Wilson‘s museum in March and Franklin Roosevelt‘s in May. Why not Gerald Ford?
I wondered what treasures might fill a museum dedicated to the presidential administration of Gerald Ford (map). He served as President for barely two years. Wilson guided the nation through the First World War, and Roosevelt brought the country out of a Great Depression and then the Second World War. They had plenty of material for a museum. Ford, well, he seemed like a nice guy from Grand Rapids who happened to be tapped as Vice President and became President unexpectedly when Richard Nixon resigned. His museum featured the expected Nixon connection and topics of the times such as the end of the Vietnam War. That still left a lot of space to fill. That’s probably why it included life-sized replicas of the White House’s Oval Office and Cabinet Room as they appeared while Ford served as President.
On the other hand, I continued to count lighthouse visits. I placed a couple more sightings on my lifetime list. I hadn’t really been thinking about lighthouses as I prepared for the trip so these were a nice surprise. We took a day trip to Muskegon to see the USS Silversides and the two lighthouses loomed over the harbor entrance. Certainly I could take a few moments to examine them a little closer.
The more impressive structure, and by that I mean the one that looked more like a traditional lighthouse, stood on the south pierhead. They called it the South Pierhead Light, not too creatively (map). See how that worked? Several versions stood there over the years and the current one began its service in 1903. It wasn’t open to the public most of the time, having fallen into a state of disrepair. Nonetheless it continued to remain an active light for navigation purposes. The Federal government transferred ownership to the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy in 2010, a nonprofit organization that hoped to restore the structure. We only saw this lighthouse from a distance and moved on.
We got a much better view of the nearby South Breakwater Light (map). This required a little hike of about a half-mile (0.8 km) from the parking lot at Pere Marquette Park to the tip of the breakwater. The kids complained the whole time although they needed a little exercise. They couldn’t spend the entire trip playing Minecraft and watching YouTube (simultaneously) so I dragged them down the concrete breakwater for a close-up view of a pretty ugly lighthouse. They’ll thank me someday. The Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy owned this one too, and also placed it on its restoration list. South Breakwater Light came much later, 1931, long after the glory days of lighthouse construction. It filled a basic utilitarian purpose although it lacked a certain grandeur and elegance.
Glaciers covered much of North America during the most recent Ice Age, some 16,000 years ago. Relentless pressure from accumulated ice ground into the underlying bedrock as glaciers advanced and retreated, creating fine sand and a rocky till. Winds blowing predominantly from the west pushed waves across Lake Michigan after the glaciers retreated, carrying this sand to its eastern shore. These natural forces created the "largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world" along Michigan’s shoreline.
Michigan had more sandy beaches than just about anywhere I’d been before. Some of the dunes reached hundreds of feet high. We didn’t make it to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on this trip, although the Saugatuck Dunes (map) offered a nice proxy closer to our temporary home.
Keeping the peace on a family trip meant taking time for activities I might otherwise overlook. I enjoyed zoos as much as anyone I supposed, although I didn’t feel any great need to go out of my way to see them either. We visited two, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo (map) in Ohio and the John Ball Zoo (map) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That’s what my older son enjoyed so that’s how they found their way onto our itinerary. He wants to visit every zoo in the United States. He also wants to collect a map at each zoo he visits.
I can’t imagine where he inherited that relentless need to create lists and collect maps.